This morning we drove through the checkpoint into Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. I wish I’d been able to photograph the first piece of graffiti I saw: “Make Hummus Not Walls.” Priceless. As was the “John the Baptist Souvenir Shop”. This is Israel, a land of contrasts in so many ways, a land that holds within itself so much diversity and so many contradictions. It can be jarring.
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, and a place shared by the Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian communities. As someone who has long used a Jerome BIblical Commentary, I enjoyed learning about Jerome’s time in Jerusalem and seeing his study cell and chapel. Here is me touching the grotto of the nativity (the place where Jesus was born) — and our group. Miraculously, we had the place to ourselves for a few minutes. I’ve heard that sometimes the lines are so long you only barely shuffle through. We had time to sing “Silent Night” and pray together. I found it very moving. Whether or not you believe that exact spot marks the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, it felt like a holy place:
When you step outside the church, the contrasts begin. A mosque is right around the corner, and you are bombarded by people trying to sell you cheap souvenirs. Here were some highlights of our walk from the church back to the bus. I hope you particularly enjoy the coffee shop sign!
We began driving in the countryside around Bethlehem. I was startled by huge red signs at intersections that led to little villages. The signs said, in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “Israeli citizens are not to enter Palestinian territory…entrance forbidden…could be dangerous to your life.” We drove into one of those villages, Beit Sahour, for lunch at Ruth’s Field Restaurant where our choices were falafel and a drink ($8) or shawarma and a drink ($10). Here’s Ruth:
We drove back through the checkpoint and stopped at an overlook to see the city from the south. Pictures much better on this gloriously sunny day:
We can’t say enough good things about our driver Jameel (he maneuvers that bus down some tiny crowded streets) or our tour guide Walleed who is full of both good information and good humor. None of us were at all surprised that we ran into some of his relatives on the street on our way to the birthplace of John the Baptist. Walleed seems to know someone everywhere we go. You can see his friendliness:
A church, which commemorates the birth of John the Baptist, was built over a cave:
Last stop of the day is the church which commemorates the Emmaus story. Our guide Walleed talked to us about the history of the church, which was first built by the Crusaders in 1143. I read the story from Luke and we walked around. I found the grounds to be beautiful and much more spiritual than the inside of the church:
So many contrasts and contradictions: the spiritual and the material, hearing the Muslim call to prayer immediately after visiting the birthplace of Jesus, finding that all of the holy sites associated with the simple ministry of Jesus have become ornate churches…we’re trying to absorb it all. I enjoyed driving around the countryside today. We stopped at one high spot and could see all of the Judean hills: those that are dotted with villages and those to the east that are not inhabited at all. In those places, and in the faces of people, I feel the presence of God most closely.